LISTEN to this story on The American Friend. By the speaking half of the songwriting team of Fairall and Danz. It's about a certain place on MacDougal…
“There’s only one me, and I’m stuck with him.”
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
NOBODY ELSE. JUST ME.
The man was huge, a behemoth. He had a whopping imponderable face like a sledgehammer jammed onto a thickset steel beam inexplicably melted from the heat of the crowd. When the man turned, ever so slightly and sweating profusely, his complexion caught glassy bourbon washed light from the bar. Then, he looked like meat.
Van Terry shrank from the big man’s glare and stepped further from the perimeter of the actor’s implied barricade to a safer distance at the opposite end of the bar. Onscreen, the guy personified ferocious in many guises: comedic, dramatic, evil, cartoon. No one approached him. Those who noticed his bullying girth in the dimly lit room averted their eyes, turned away or looked past him. For once, living embodiment surpassed fiction.
Van was no match. He was not tall, but average height, and what some might call nondescript. Still, he slouched through life with a body suited to shouldering a guitar, much like he’d seen in snapshots of his grandfather. His hands were smaller than most guitar players. He was fair-haired and at the first sign of premature thinning he’d shed the ponytail and let the rest curl gingerly above his shirt collar. Bluish grey eyes cast more of a sideways glance, unlike the piercing frown of the actor easily twice his age who stared witheringly but acknowledged no one, not even the winsome bartender. Van watched as he gestured wordlessly to an empty glass and then knocked back the shot like he was swallowing a pill.
Van played a regular set midweek at the Lamplight’s open mic. It was home to a single-minded collective of singer-songwriters. Van’s skill at the mixing desk and being in possession of a decent mic had earned him a feature spot. There were regulars who appeared every week, some with songs so overplayed Van knew them by heart. Van braved a new one now and again, reading from the lyric sheet if he had to. He flexed the song in front of a live audience, gave it a pulse. Performers who came and went played out a couple of songs where they stood rinsed under a tarnished spot light on the small stage to the left of the front door.
It was run by a nonchalant old folkie with an illustrious past. A well-seasoned newsboy cap bested the spotlight and shaded deep-set eyes rueful and tender at the same time. War and romance had been won and lost. Mostly lost. The underground compere’s closing set ended with a pint lifted to dissipated memory and departed friends. He told stories like a shipwrecked sailor who had made it back to shore and now had all the time in the world. Housed in a coal cellar, long since disused as such, sunk below well-trodden pavement on MacDougal Street, the Lamplight’s air shafts had served as conduits for thunderous applause that blasted into the tenants’ apartments above. He’d chuckle and snap his fingers. “When the cops showed up the clapping stopped.” He rejected the honorarium his much younger acolytes insisted on him. He was not a living legend. Nor was he the madcap godfather of folk. He was, he’d argued, an historical monument.
Hip Hop had wandered in like a cocksure stranger to the neighborhood and for a while had found a late night home at the Lamplight when the acoustic open mic ended. Van had an easy rapport with the guy who took over the mixing desk. “One of these nights,” Van had promised, “I’ll hang around to hear what you’re doing.” The neighborhood community board hadn’t considered that and, before long, Hip Hop at The Lamplight was history.
It was Saturday night, not the usual crowd at the Lamplight. That there was a crowd at all was significant. Unlike most nights there was a meaningful buzz in the room. The featured singer—the one who had packed the house—had a starring role in a new film about another old folkie, the famously unsung Mayor of MacDougal Street. The gig was sold out. Van read Dave Van Ronk’s behind-the-scenes memoir, which had, in fact, got him to the Lamplight in the first place.
That first night—and every week thereafter—the old folkie played for free. They all did. More often the artists outnumbered the audience. He banned the tip bucket, but encouraged the crew to tip the bartender well. Why should they be paying each other to make music when the owners won’t pay for the entertainment? He passed out drink tickets to the performers, more to the regulars. It was something at least. The Lamplight seemed a good fit for Van.
But from the sound of it the Mayor of MacDougal Street who trail blazed for the likes of Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell wasn’t getting his real name up in lights any time soon. The Brothers Auteur had directed a fanciful account; a fictional name would appear on the marquee.
The Lamplight still boasted a vivid, if half-forgotten, history. Van craned his neck and searched the amiable, laid-back crowd gathered under a low timbered ceiling. Rough-hewn walls recalled that coal cellar but as Van’s grandmother quipped the first time she came to see him play: “There’s no smell to the place anymore.”
The bar was booked for the production crew’s wrap party and tickets had been sold to the public to beef up the numbers. They were there to see and hear the man who wasn’t Dave Van Ronk, but had an uncanny style reminiscent of the guy. No other actors beside the big man at the bar were present. Unless disguised, Justin Timberlake was not in the house. The filmmakers were nowhere to be seen. The big man—a regular in their films—sent as a consolation prize. Van had been asked to do the sound. Everything was under control; he just needed to turn up. He was given the closing set, another consolation. Van knew this. He didn’t care. He just wanted to play.
Earlier, on his way to the gig, he’d detoured through Washington Square Park to West 4th Street. Students elbowed tourists. Tourists gawked at the musicians and comedians who still busked in Washington Square Park where city control freaks had moved the fountain at great expense because it was deemed slightly off center. Van pressed into a divergent crowd of onlookers momentarily distracted from the uptown traffic on 6th Avenue by a basketball game still in progress. He’d cheered silently as he followed the action from behind a chain link fence. Teenagers in blue uniforms, the other team in purple. Girls, all black, earnest and unaware of the fence hangers street side. None from the neighborhood, he guessed. He’d seen some fierce games played out among older guys. The strip of fenced in concrete was known as The Cage. He’d nodded to a few familiar faces before making his way back to MacDougal.
The neighborhood had weathered fluctuating economic indicators in the past. The needle hovered around gentrification now. A bloated university complex—what Van’s grandmother called that stinking pile of entitlement—grew like a meningioma in Greenwich Village. Outwardly there were only cosmetic changes, but inwardly the neighborhood was being strangled with each growth spurt of that insidious tumor. The personality of a charmingly irascible neighborhood of serviceable shops that served impractical artists with as much prickly affection as it did families deep-rooted in neighboring tenements was altered, becoming unbalanced, its vision blurred. Seasonally employed actors, artists and musicians gave way to über celebs and investment bankers that never worried about seasons except what to pack. Shopkeepers who knew every kid on the block were gone. Van never saw any kids unless they were tethered to tourists.
In the last eight or nine months since he’d been playing at the Lamplight the changes on the street, especially on Bleecker, were tidal. There were a lot of signs—economic weather forecasts—on every block: Under new management, space available, store closing. New, soulless facades appeared blending one into the other in heedless triumph. Bleecker Bob’s waved from its jumbled sea of oldies but goodies and would soon drown. Kenny’s would be another castaway in the fall.
MacDougal was still a collection of colorful shops, a fictitious international ragtag. Vendors still hawked the hats and sunglasses that changed style with the trend, and would appear—as if by some underground command—on the heads of nearly everyone who coveted cool. A trilby magically affected everything about its wearer, sliding posture into a theatrical hipster stance, a gateway drug to a tattoo habit. Even that was changing. Beanies clung to heads like knitted tongues these days. Little signs appeared in tenants’ windows along MacDougal: “Don’t smoke under the window.” Passersby were warned not to sit on the front steps of red brick buildings laced with iron grillwork. “Private property! Keep out!” An angry merchants’ organization stamped its initials on ubiquitous yellow flyers taped to front doors. But Van thought the merchants were losing the battle to an ever-longer reach of a university’s tentacles. New were electronic cigarettes, a challenge to those no smoking signs. A lone dry cleaner had survived the alterations, a thin thread of proof that this was once a village neighborhood.
Customers still queued patiently outside a fist of a cave called Mamoun’s and left gripping paper bags steamed with falafel-stuffed pitas. Halal and Ethiopian cafes, hookah bars and curry takeout kept the street smelling sweet. You could still get a slice. Like the cockroach, pizza would survive long after the planet had been decimated. Diehards like Caffe Reggio and Monte’s dug in, but for how long? Van’s grandmother had bent her elbow at the Minetta Tavern when it didn’t have a doorman and designer blinds drawn to the riff raff on the street, before the parade of Escalades drew the trendy behind tinted windows to its corner entrance.
Bars opened to the street in warmer weather. Bone crunching rock music spilled from a few like a busted tap, but comedy clubs featured stand up comedians. They were the rock stars now. One night after the open mic at the Lamplight, Van had tripped down the stairs to the Ale House and immediately confronted his visceral reaction to the frat house mood of a sports bar and strode right back up to the street. Another murky entrance to a dank cellar bar further up the block had not yet been breached. Even with the promise of craft beer advertised above the doorway it was still a black hole signed with the image of a glowering white rabbit with pink eye.
Like the Lamplight, music venues mentioned in Van Ronk’s memoir survived on MacDougal though it was a shell game to guess which one housed the authentic spirit of folk music. The Fat Black Pussycat sprang to life at another location down the street after a Mexican restaurant displaced it. Jack Kerouac’s ghost adjusted his inebriated ramble to Christopher Street where the Kettle of Fish, which used to live above the Lamplight, had bumped the old Lion’s Head from its home of thirty years.
The ghost of Gerde’s Folk City haunted the basement of the Village Underground, rarely venturing to the street, unwilling to confront what had been lost. Even a ghost has memories of the great performers on the street like Randy Burns, Doc Watson, Eric Anderson, John Lee Hooker, Richie Havens, Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, Buffy St. Marie and the Rev. Gary Davis. Even ghosts mourn talent and the folk rock craze that had had plenty of that and destiny once.
Those were the days when bohemian meant only one thing—that revolution could still be detected on social breezes when stirred by political debate—and the Village meant only one place, Greenwich Village.
Van signaled the bartender. Her name was Luna and everyone called her Lu. The first time Van performed at The Lamplight he noticed her. He never stopped noticing her.
“You okay?” Luna draped over the bar, tanned arms outstretched, an elegant appeal. “Same again?”
Lu was an actor, both stage and screen. She was also a writer of offbeat plays and poetry that snuck up on you like a misplaced desire. Her thought process at work was not her own. It belonged to everyone who was mesmerized by her, who watched as she periodically removed herself from the clamor of patrons bellied up to the bar. No one rushed her. When she perched on a stool behind the bar, head bent over a notebook or a script, a customer—even a first time visitor—waited until acknowledged and then was grateful. Everyone, men and women alike, noticed lustrous hair tremble her shoulders like an inky waterfall. Her expression was impenetrable for that split second before the irresistible invitation to her lightness returned.
She’d tell you hippies raised her in the same way another would say they’d been reared by wolves. She softened the edge of urban argot with an actor’s attention to pronunciation. She missed the beaches of southern California yet had never ventured to Coney Island.
Luna had a soft spot for rescued fawns pictured cradled in the paws of noble Labradors. She was disappointed when Van said tigers don’t actually suckle piglets, that she could not trust everything on the Internet. She was classic, utterly timeless. Luna networked like everyone else but she had still not crossed over to Timeline. “They’ll have to come and get me,” she said. Her favorite artists were her friends. When politics lit the alcohol-saturated air in the bar, Luna wondered aloud what people her age could possibly do to change things.
“Go on,” Van told her. “Hit me.” But she had already poured an unbiased measure of Knob Creek. Neat. Ice, she knew, just got in the way. “On me,” she said. “Cheers,” he returned.
“She’s so far up his ass she’ll need a flashlight to find her way out.”
Luna laughed like she’d been pinched and they both turned to face a couple of dressed down, candid, middle-aged men behind them, regulars at open mic night and close friends of Mike Portnoy, the Lamplight’s hard working impresario. Van chided them good-naturedly. “You still going on about her?” Usually they kept their earnest conversations to politics. Both had been pressing Van to get onboard with the Occupy Wall Street movement. “I love how she plays the shy card,” the silver-haired ponytail grunted. “Like a shark,” his bearded, bearish companion retorted. “Her new one? Heroin and Apple Pie?” Together they warbled comically off key: “And today I saw hope in the eyes of a child.” Luna laughed again, unable to help herself. “Be nice, guys. It takes all kinds.”
“Where is this joker?” Van grumbled. “He should have been on an hour ago.” “Portnoy’s looking for a mic,” Lu said. She lifted her resolute chin and scanned the room like a radar detector. “Another one went missing last night,” she said, narrowing her vision. Van was incredulous. “At the poetry jam?” “Nothing’s sacred,” Lu sighed.
Portnoy appeared edging through the crowd. He handed Van a recognizable brown paper bag. “Here you go buddy. Thought you might be hungry.” Van took the bag. It was going to be a while. He asked: “What’s happen—?” Portnoy poked his friends in an affable, careless rush. “Be right back. Got to call….” He fumbled with his cell phone. “Listen, take me a minute. Erik has one, just running next door.” Apart from when Van was behind the desk at the open mic, they scrambled for a working microphone on most nights. Tonight was no different. “Have a drink on me guys.” He leaned into Van: “There’s something for you in the bag. I appreciate you waiting around.” The smell of falafel and pot trailed Portnoy like a shadow.
Luna shrugged, poured another shot. “Go. Eat,” she said. Van grabbed his drink and settled on a cushioned bench in the quiet of the back room where performers tuned their guitars, though a lot of them preferred to do that on stage, wasting time, irritating Van who believed a muso should be mic ready.
He’d wolfed down the falafel and contemplated the joint Mike had slipped in the bag when Van heard a beep. A quick glance told him it was his grandmother. She never used abbreviations for textese. He loved to think of her laboriously pecking away at perfect spelling and grammar. “No,” he texted, “not on yet. Still time. Come on over.”
His grandmother, Lee Terry, was a night owl. She was an upright painter, a romantic with anarchic leanings. She was also his roommate. Until he’d heard: “Dude, you live with your grandma? What’s that like?” he’d not given it a second thought. A first thought, yes, but rationalizing had never brought him to that second thought. She’d insisted on being called Lee since he was a kid and that made it easier in the long run, that and his relative freedom to pursue the muse.
Van’s parents, Alice and Donald Lotz, were normal people. She edited a small nature conservancy magazine and he worked in insurance. They’d raised Van in West Hartford. Connecticut was a state his grandmother abhorred. Alice swore a peripatetic childhood would not be her only son’s life. Mother and daughter abided reciprocal confusion. Van suspected there had been some acrimony before he was born. He also had a gut feeling that his mother had suffered for love, long before Van came along. There was certainly history.
Van had majored in philosophy but left UConn for an ever-widening gap year until the crevasse was too wide to backtrack. “What do you actually care about?” his father asked. It was a question increasingly put to him. Van didn’t know, he didn’t know even after the hundredth time he’d been asked. Nothing made sense to him, especially the jarring differences between Lee and his mother. Shouldn’t the child be the rebellious one? His grandmother railed, while Alice and David calmly ignored her protestations and stuck to their idea of what a progressive liberal was and would not be swayed from voting for the incumbent. “The lesser of two evils is still evil,” Lee warned.
His grandmother never asked what he cared about. He moved into her rent controlled flat on East Ninth Street. His mother radiated control, but she’d raised her voice, so out of character, and warned he was too much like his grandfather; that Lee was making a mistake by taking him in. “He’s got potential,” Lee said. “And an interesting voice.” “Over my dead body,” his mother cried. “Ah, yes,” Lee replied. “The scenic route.”
Van had always played the guitar, encouraged by Lee and tolerated by his parents. He got serious about songwriting and he took his grandmother’s surname. His father grudgingly accepted that Terry was a better stage name than Van Lotz. His mother was in no position to protest, though she did. Her given name was Morning. When she turned 21 she’d changed it to Alice. Van once asked her why she’d been named Morning. “Because it was the only time dad was sober,” she said. Alice seemed to accept that a lifelong crusade to levigate elements of her past had failed. She had still not seen her son perform.
“He’s found a mic.” Luna appeared under pin lights that marked the room like fireflies. She offered Van a pint glass of ice water. “No rush though, the guy’s held up at some press event.” She looked at him, cocked her head and asked: “You okay?” Van smiled reassuringly and held up his cell phone. “Lee’s on her way over.” “Great!” Lu answered. “The guys will love that. They’re on a roll out there.” Van took the glass from Luna and gulped thirstily. “How’s it going with the crowd?” She grinned and it was like a light had come on. “We’re throwing drinks at them. It’s all good.”
Lee knew the guys at the bar. His grandmother seemed to know everyone. The first time she walked in to the Lamplight on open mic night the old folkie lit up with recognition. “Still fighting the fight?” he asked. “Still fighting the fight,” she’d replied. She’d been to every protest, every demonstration and never flagged. Her friends were younger than Van and they were her age, some older, and all were dogged in their determination to bring a voice to the movement known as Occupy Wall Street. One couple, George and Sue, would come around to the flat, and, sunk into worn chairs surrounded by paintings in progress, would talk politics over endless cups of coffee during the day and generous rounds of beer and wine in the evenings. They were both retired, she from teaching in public school and he from a union job with the MTA. Their stamina impressed Van. They never tired of trading stories: acts of radical heroism and the shame of the morally neutral rich. George had been arrested numerous times. Van suspected Lee had at least one arrest in her past but it was never brought up in his presence. They honestly believed in the power of passive resistance, at least as a starting point.
Politics. Van gave a fuck about absolutely none of it. Killed his grandfather, anyway, from what he could tell. Walking home across Bleecker one night from a late supper at the Cornelia Street Café Van and Lee passed a construction site that was once a home to Phil Ochs. The destruction of everything else in the Village infuriated her. It was a personal affront when her block was overrun with film crew, recreating a Lamplight that wasn’t the Lamplight on a MacDougal that was really East Ninth Street. Van thought the cars and the fashions of the early 60s were cool. Lee did not. “What’s the fucking point when it still exists,” she’d carped.
His grandmother’s shrug of resignation when they’d spied the building site was a surprise. “You’re grandfather had the Ochs gene,” she’d said wistfully, devoid of rancor. No one talked about his grandfather when Van was a kid except for passing references or ambiguous answers to his pointed questions when he was older. His name was Able—Amblin’ Abe. Able had it, meaning the suicide gene. He wrote songs of protest. Lee spoke of him more since Van was living with her. “Your grandfather suffered from honesty,” she’d told him. He was a socialist, what they called the president now. Which couldn’t be right, thought Van. When he sometimes asked about her freewheeling youth she’d tell him stories but often replied with less enthusiasm. “Don’t stand on the delicate bones of the past,” she’d say. “They will never hold up under the pressure. Stay in the moment.”
“You either live long enough, or you don’t,” she’d sighed as they saluted the ghost of Phil Ochs that night. “Who said that?” asked Van. “Vince Martin,” she’d replied. “Old friend. Haven’t seen him in a long time, wonder if…” “Who?” Van pressed. “He had a massive hit back in the late 50s.” She sang a few bars: “Cindy, oh, Cindy…” “Nope” he’d said, “Never heard of it.” “I forget how young you really are,” she’d said and stroked his hair. He recalled shivering, as if someone had walked on his grave.
Nobody was riding the rails but some of them still wrote songs about it. They wrote songs about skinning rabbits, too. Who did that? He was more enamored of the plaintive appeal of Antony and the Johnsons, darkly volant love songs. He loved the music and the lyrics of strong women like Lucinda Williams, a gravel-voiced ball buster with the proverbial heart of gold. He didn’t really connect with folk, the songs of heroic bums and political royalty. Who said hoboes anyway? He wrote love songs. Which was funny because he was single, shy and not very adventurous in love. His grandmother said it was more like he was channeling the kinds of love songs her husband wrote for her; painful, full of longing, faced with decisions he hated to make and then did.
The girls who hung around the performers who wore overalls and flat caps—guys who sported the full beard he’d never been able to raise—did not tempt him. Those girls had bodies like gentle serpents, with the sweet curvature of an unformed woman. They wore their hair in plaits and their slender shoulders poked from the fragile nightgowns they wore as dresses. It was play shabby. “The Fake Depression” Lee called it. “Walker Evans with a credit card.” They weren’t seductive to Van, more like reconstructed.
He heard Lee’s voice above a lull in the crowd. “That fucking flame is everywhere,” she said, unbothered at being overheard. Van waved to her from the mixing desk. Silver-haired ponytail countered: “Those law students will be defending you when you’re arrested, Lee.” A split second later they were shouting gleefully, “Not!”
Van took in her uniform as she called it: sturdy sandals, baggy linen trousers and a black t-shirt. This one had Unarmed Civilian emblazoned on it. Essentially Van was just like his grandmother; sandals, cutoffs, t-shirt, only his was lacking any slogan. “We’re alike,” she’d say. “We notice the flaws.”
A commotion at the entrance signaled the singer’s arrival. Van was relieved to see there would be only one other performer, a backing guitar. He brushed off the singer’s brusque tone—of course Van looked like he knew what he was doing—and they went ahead without a sound check.
The guy did a mean impersonation of Van Ronk’s voice. Van was lulled into a pleasant space, deep inside him when he jerked up from the shock of memory. It was a Joni Mitchell song. He heard Van Ronk, the real Van Ronk, in his head and he was suddenly a small boy, listening to his mother sing along with that singular growl:
I've looked at love from both sides now
From give and take, and still somehow
It’s love’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know love at all
I really don’t know love at all
The energy in the room stiffened and the crowd rent a seam to let the big man through. He leapt to the stage with surprising grace, dwarfing the featured singer. After one bluesy duet, the actor left the stage to thunderous applause and hustled out the front door. Lee sidled up to Van. “Is that it?” Van nodded, “Looks like it.” She rolled her eyes and quipped: “Cripes he’s like a fish outta water. He sings like a girl!”
“Hey Lee,” Portnoy hollered above the applause. “Van, get up there, okay?” Van knew he was there to keep the punters from emptying the place. He grabbed his guitar and made his way to the stage but the herd had already thinned, searching for a fresh watering hole.
“I couldn’t hear you at all,” his grandmother said when the place had emptied. “People are so rude nowadays.” Still at the bar were the two friends of Mike Portnoy, but they were heading out. Even Mike had packed it in. Lu slid a fresh shot across the bar to Van. “I’ve gotta lock up,” she said, “But I can do that anytime.” Her suggestion that Van give his grandmother a command performance was met with delighted handclapping from Lee.
Van closed the set with his love song to Coney Island. Lee hugged him to her, hard. “I love that song,” she said. Lu switched off the last light and shepherded them to the door. “Wonder Wheel, right? I love it, too.” “Can’t remember the last time I was out there,” Lee mused. “I’ve never been there,” Lu said. She was off from the bar the next day, why not go out there? “I’m always off,” Lee laughed, “I’ll go if you go.”
Van stood with Lee in a starless night on MacDougal as Luna climbed the stairs to the street. He’d seen her away from the bar in the daylight only once, in the park, and her smile had ricocheted off the sun. The fountain in Washington Square Park was, after all that fuss and bother, still off center. Van was fine off center. Rain or shine, tomorrow would be a good day.
NOBODY ELSE. JUST ME is an original short story by Linda Danz.
STORIES ON THE AMERICAN FRIEND Writers Guild of America, East #R28299
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, business organizations, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. The use of names of actual persons, places, and events is incidental to the plot, and is not intended to change the entirely fictional character of the work. © September 2012.
The story title: Nobody Else. Just Me, comes from the title of Dave Van Ronk’s album, Somebody Else, Not Me. On it he returns to basic blues, folk and jazz. It was released in 1999. Originally it was to be released in late 1970’s.